Questions & Answers

  • There are a variety of goals that can be achieved with the use of alcohol interlocks. These include: incapacitation, deterrence, punishment, and rehabilitation.
  • Incapacitation. The primary function of the alcohol interlock device is to incapacitate the offender and prevent them from starting or driving their vehicle once they have been drinking. This is an important tool because research shows that 75% of suspended, revoked, or unlicensed drivers will continue to drive (Waller 1985; Hagen et al.1980; Sadler and Perrine 1984; Peck et al. 1985; Ross and Gonzales 1988; Griffin III and De La Zerda 2000). Alcohol interlocks are a short-term measure unless the intent is to use the device for extended periods or lifetime monitoring, or it is coupled with an appropriate treatment component to change behaviour. 
  • Deterrence.  The purpose of general deterrence is to deter the public from drinking and driving by imposing specific consequences (e.g., an alcohol interlock) on convicted offenders. Seeing or knowing that other individuals are subject to these consequences can deter the general public from drinking and driving. Specific deterrence involves applying the alcohol interlock to convicted offenders to deter that specific offender’s future drinking and driving behaviour. 
  • Punishment. The installation of the device imposes some degree of punishment in that it sends a message to the offender and is a reminder that their behaviour is unacceptable. It also forces them to see the consequences of their actions. Punitive aspects include: providing the breath test to start the vehicle, reporting for servicing, the cost of the device, and the stigma of using the device.
  • Rehabilitation. The alcohol interlock can create a ‘window of opportunity’ to motivate the offender to change their behaviour while providing a safety net to protect the public in the event of relapse. The offender can be encouraged to participate in treatment to address underlying drinking issues and if a relapse occurs they will be unable to drive impaired. Information provided by the device can enable the treatment provider to work with the offender to overcome denial about the drinking behaviour and recognize its impact.
  • Other benefits. Other benefits associated with sentencing offenders to an alcohol interlock are that it allows offenders to maintain family ties, to remain employed and continue to support their family, and provide greater opportunities for sustained benefits in treatment alternatives. Each of these factors is important because they address specific criminogenic risk factors including, low self control, family dysfunction, lack of employment, and substance abuse issues that contribute to offending behaviour (Taxman 2006). The use of alcohol interlocks to address these criminogenic factors can assist practitioners in reducing the potential for future offending and support the development of long-term risk reduction.
  • There are three different types of implementation strategies that are used to apply alcohol interlocks to impaired driving offenders in North America – court-based, license-based and hybrid applications which integrate court and license-based components.
  • Court-based applications rely upon courts to mandate the alcohol interlock device for drunk drivers, either pre-trial or post-conviction.
  • Advantages of court-based applications include:
    • The court has the legal authority to ensure compliance with the alcohol interlock order.
    • Courts are in a better position to monitor offenders as the infrastructure frequently already exists to monitor offenders for compliance with a variety of sanctions.
    • Courts can require offenders to install the device pre-trial as opposed to waiting for adjudication. This can minimize opportunities for unlicensed driving pre-adjudication.
    • Courts are better positioned to require offenders to participate in treatment in conjunction with the alcohol interlock supervision period.
  • Licensed-based applications rely upon the department of motor vehicles (DMV) or its equivalent to apply the alcohol interlock as a condition of licensing for suspended drivers or for reinstatement.
  • Advantages of licence-based applications include:
    • These applications are often more uniformly applied to offenders throughout a jurisdiction.
    • A smaller number of agencies/departments may be involved in these applications for communication and paperwork can be streamlined.
  • Alcohol interlock programs in all jurisdictions are funded using an offender-pay scheme, although a growing number of jurisdictions are examining a variety of strategies to accommodate indigent offenders who otherwise could not afford the device, and thus, would be prevented from participating in the alcohol interlock program.
  • Prices vary across jurisdictions. The devices generally average approximately US $70.00 for installation and an additional US $70.00 monthly to cover the costs associated with downloading and reporting the data captured by the device. This cost may be greater in rural jurisdictions where fewer offenders are monitored using an interlock or fewer service providers are available.
  • The cost of the alcohol interlock device is about $3 per day or about the cost of a drink.
  • The costs of impaired driving in the United States total $50 billion annually (Robertson et al. 2007a).
  • There are some important issues that alcohol interlock legislation should address. These include:
    • Vehicle ownership – Legislation should not require the offender to own the vehicle that the device is installed upon.
    • Driving a non-interlocked vehicle – Use of a vehicle not equipped with an alcohol interlock should be an offence.
    • Tampering or circumventing the device – Tampering with or circumventing the alcohol interlock device should be an offence.
    • Providing a breath sample – Legislation should make it an offence to provide a breath sample to enable interlock-restricted drivers to start their vehicles.
    • Requesting a breath sample – Legislation should make it an offence for an interlock-restricted driver to request a breath sample from another person. 
    • Providing a non-interlocked vehicle – It should be an offence to loan or rent a vehicle to an interlock-restricted driver.
  • Enforcement is a critical element to ensure the effectiveness of any law. Police must be aware of and able to enforce the laws to create a deterrent effect.  
  • Alcohol interlock legislation must be streamlined. In many jurisdictions, laws are passed in a somewhat piece-meal fashion. When legislation is being considered it is important to look at the overall package of existing legislation relating to drunk driving to ensure that alcohol interlock legislation is compatible with it.
  • As a final consideration, there appears to be a growing trend towards alcohol interlock legislation to target both first and repeat offenders. While research supports the use of alcohol interlocks with first offenders (EMT Group 1990; Morse and Elliot 1992; Tippets and Voas 1998; Voas et al. 1999; Voas et al. 2005), such an approach does carry with it substantial resource, staffing and infrastructure implications that must be addressed.
  • In combination with good legislation, jurisdictions also require supporting policy that enables agencies to effectively apply and enforce these laws.
  • In most jurisdictions, which offenders are eligible to install an alcohol interlock is determined by statute in conjunction with the program authority. For example, statute can designate both first and repeat offenders as eligible to receive an alcohol interlock device.
  • In excess of forty U.S. states mandate an alcohol interlock for repeat drunk drivers (TIRF 2008). Many jurisdictions also require high-BAC offenders to install an alcohol interlock.
  • There are often other eligibility requirements that are authorized by statute and/or set by the program authority (i.e., either the court or the licensing agency).
  • General eligibility requirements that may need to be met before an offender can have an alcohol interlock installed include:
    1. payment of outstanding fines and fees;
    2. completion of the hard suspension period with no additional driving offences;
    3. completion of any rehabilitation program; and,
    4. permission from the vehicle owner for installation.
  • Research suggests that offenders should have an alcohol interlock installed as soon as possible following the imposition of pre-trial conditions or upon conviction.
  • Offenders who use drugs and those who kill or seriously injure others as a result of a drunk driving crash are generally deemed to be ineligible to install the device.
  • Offenders who are consistently non-compliant should not be removed from interlock programs because they pose the greatest risk to the public and should continue to use the device until they are able to demonstrate compliance.
  • It is essential that offenders actually comply with orders to install the device and that the program authority is able to confirm that fact. Research shows that 20-25% of offenders will fail to install the device (EMT Group 1990; DeYoung 2002).
  • To reduce the likelihood that offenders will fail to install the device, courts and licensing agencies can rely upon two important strategies. First, they can require the offender to produce the certificate of installation to confirm that the device has been installed. Second, good communication between courts, probation, police, licensing agencies and service providers is critical.
  • The data recording device in the alcohol interlock records information that enables the program authority to monitor offender behaviour and create a chronology of the use of the vehicle.
  • Devices are designed to capture the following date- and time-stamped information:
    1. all breath tests (including tests to start the vehicle as well as running retests) and the BAC level of each breath test; 
    2. failure to submit breath tests when required to do so;
    3. each time the vehicle is turned on and off;
    4. all attempts to tamper with, circumvent or remove the device;
    5. failure to turn off the vehicle following a failed breath test;
    6. the mileage driven;
    7. the time period during which the car was driven;
    8. lockouts to the vehicle;
    9. early recalls (requiring an offender to report for servicing before the end of the service period – usually a function of repeated violations); and
    10. use of the emergency override option (if activated).
  • The most important pieces of information that should be reported, in addition to client and vehicle information, mileage, and date of servicing, include:
    1. alcohol positive breath tests (above the pre-set limit);
    2. failure to provide tests as required;
    3. tampering and circumvention attempts;
    4. vehicle lockouts and/or early recalls;
    5. use of the emergency override feature.
  • In most jurisdictions, offenders are required to appear at the service center every 30 days to have the data downloaded so it can be reviewed by the appropriate authority and action can be taken regarding any violations or other critical events that have occurred.
  • Monitoring authorities will receive monthly reports from service providers that should be flagged and reviewed to identify critical events that require action.
  • In a few jurisdictions reporting may occur every 60 days.
  • Some offenders may be required to report to the service center to have their information downloaded more frequently as a result of persistent non-compliant behaviour (an “early recall”). The way in which criteria for an “early recall” are defined can impact the workload associated with monitoring. 
  • Service providers report only critical events or program violations (e.g., high-BAC tests, missed retests) as required by the program authority, so the information from the data recorder is filtered before the agency receives it.
  • The manner in which violations are defined can also have a significant impact on workload. Jurisdictions define violations in different ways, but generally multiple failed tests relating to starting the vehicle may occur before a violation is registered. Other actions that are often deemed violations include trying to start the vehicle without a breath sample, or failing to provide a retest when required.
  • Recent research has revealed that failed breath tests are most common when initially starting the vehicle, as opposed to during retests or to circumvention attempts (Vanlaar and Robertson 2008).
  • More importantly, it showed that the level of offender compliance with program rules increases over time, with more violations occurring immediately following installation and then gradually declining as offenders “learn” that violations are consistently detected and they are unable to start their vehicle after drinking episodes.
  • Monitoring offenders on alcohol interlock devices is the linchpin to an effective application and pivotal to deterring future offending.
  • Offenders must be aware that consequences will be imposed for continued attempts to drink and drive, but these instances can be used as “teachable moments” to reinforce good behaviour.
  • Close observation and follow-up after drinking events are likely to deter an offender from persisting in this behaviour.
  • Monitoring is often the weakest element of any alcohol interlock application and the “gap” that offenders are most likely to “slip through”.
  • Often monitoring is inconsistent or non-existent for a variety of reasons including poor communication between agencies regarding roles and responsibilities; variations and confusion in reporting paperwork and practices; a lack of training and education among practitioners regarding the interpretation of reports; inadequate knowledge regarding what actions can or should be taken in response to events; and insufficient staff and resources to review reports and follow-up with offenders.
  • Practical things that can be done to streamline the monitoring of offenders include: designating responsibility for monitoring; establishing a good reporting system; understanding the reports; taking action in response to violations; allocating staff; and facilitating monitoring.
  • Alcohol interlocks, in combination with an appropriate treatment program may facilitate behaviour change among offenders. (Although, as discussed in question #1, the alcohol interlock alone can not and should not be expected to change behaviour).
  • The alcohol interlock can be a nexus between criminal justice sanctions and substance abuse treatment by effectively restricting and controlling an offender’s driving privileges while demonstrating to the offender how their alcohol consumption impacts their behaviour (Beirness 2001).
  • Since treatment for alcohol abuse can be a lengthy process filled with setbacks and relapses, the alcohol interlock provides a safety net to ensure that such relapses do not result in impaired driving, thus protecting the public (Beirness et al. 1998)
  • Alcohol interlock programs that lack a treatment component miss a valuable opportunity for offenders with alcohol issues to recognize the impact of their drinking and move towards readiness for change.
  • Not all offenders will require or benefit from a treatment intervention. Placing all alcohol interlock offenders in treatment can waste limited resources. Proper screening allows practitioners to best assess the needs of offenders and allocate resources accordingly.
  • It should be noted that the use of alcohol interlocks is only beginning to be combined with a treatment component in the U.S.
  • To date, alcohol education or treatment is often required to be completed prior to the installation of the alcohol interlock. This is problematic as offenders who must complete treatment before the device is installed have no support in controlling their drinking. This may place the public at risk. Also, the treatment provider cannot benefit from the information provided by the device to assist in the treatment process.
  • Program officials are responsible for determining on what basis an offender should be removed from an alcohol interlock program. These criteria may also be determined by statute or administrative regulations.
  • Each jurisdiction requires alcohol interlock offenders to be supervised for varying periods of time. The duration of supervision can range from 3 months to several years and in rare instances, life.
  • More recently, programs are beginning to adopt a policy in which the decision to remove the device is based upon the performance of the offender while on the device. The notion behind implementing a performance-based approach is that a basic system of reinforcements and punishments is put into place whereby fewer violations results in a shorter period of supervision while more violations result in an increased period of supervision.
  • Research is still needed to determine the optimal amount of time that an offender should be supervised by an alcohol interlock. Currently, a good estimate of time is a minimum of six months (Crime and Justice Institute 2004; Zinn et al. 2004).
  • It is paramount that persistent non-compliant offenders remain on the alcohol interlock to ensure that they are unable to drive impaired.
  • The delivery of services in an alcohol interlock program is often dependent upon the availability of resources (e.g., agency infrastructure, financial support, human resources, available service providers).
  • Program authorities in rural jurisdictions are faced with challenges that those in urban settings are less likely to encounter.
    • Availability – Fewer services may be available and this is problematic as offenders in these areas rely heavily on the ability to drive for the purposes of employment, court hearings, and treatment purposes.
    • Monitoring and reporting – Court or probation services are not routinely or consistently available.
    • Resources – Courts or justice personnel may not be available to conduct violation hearings when one has been found to have occurred. They may also not be familiar enough with these devices to respond to critical issues.